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True Sabbath Obedience

(Written by Pastor Tim Redfield)

Mark 2:23-28 – One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”


This text focuses on the Third Commandment. This is a good commandment to think about because it can easily be misunderstood. This commandment encourages us to keep the Sabbath Day holy. I wonder if we truly have the proper understanding of how we keep the Sabbath day holy. Those of us who gather for worship might think that we have no problem keeping this commandment. After all, we are the ones who worship God in church. On the other hand, people who are not in worship may convince themselves that they are praising God in their lives so they don’t need to make the time to come to church.

Besides those two kinds of thoughts, people may also wonder what this commandment says about working for six days and then resting on the seventh. Why don’t we follow that part of the commandment? Why don’t we work Sunday through Friday and then make Saturday our day of rest and worship? The Pharisees certainly would reprimand us for not worshiping on Saturday. The words of Jesus in the four gospels and the rest of the New Testament make it clear that the regulations about what day of the week we are to rest and worship are not the main point of the Third Commandment. As Christians today, we have freedom to worship at any time.

The Pharisees had missed the main point of the Sabbath day. They thought that they could worship and praise the Lord through how well they rested on the Sabbath. They added several new laws to God’s Sabbath regulations. The Pharisees had rules about how many steps someone could take on the Sabbath before it was considered work. They even had rules about how much someone could clean their own home. They missed the point of the Sabbath day of rest. God wants people to have time off from their labor so that he can bless us through time in worship. 

We see the misunderstanding of the Pharisees displayed in the way they react to the disciples. The disciples’ action was permissible. Deuteronomy 23:25 says, “If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain.” Any other day of the week, the Pharisees would not have said anything. But on the Sabbath, they accused the disciples of harvesting. They thought the disciples were doing work. The Pharisees were so focused on their man-made rules that they missed the fact that God made the Sabbath rest in order to give us spiritual, mental and physical restoration.

Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees that there can be times that the outward regulations of the Sabbath don’t have to be strictly followed. He gave them the example of David. When David and his men were fleeing from King Saul, they stopped at the tabernacle for some food. Normally it would have been against God’s Sabbath laws for the consecrated bread to be eaten by anyone besides the priests. However, under those circumstances, because of the need of David and his men, it was permissible for the priest to allow David to have some of those loaves of bread.

It is natural for us to ask what parts of the Third Commandment apply to us today. If it is not about worshipping on Saturday, then what is God telling us to do? Other portions of God’s Word give us the guidance about this commandment. There are several passages we could look at but we’ll focus on Paul’s words from Colossians 2:16-17. It says, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” These words make it clear that the specific day of worship is not the main focus. The Old Testament laws were pointing ahead to Christ and what he would do to save us.

So what actions are appropriate as we live according to the Third Commandment? Martin Luther summarizes it in his explanation to this commandment, “We should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it.” We are to meet together for worship and we are to hear God’s Word. Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” James 1:22 says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Regarding this commandment, doing what the word says equals worshipping God with fellow believers and staying in God’s Word.

We need to evaluate ourselves. Do we worship God with a proper attitude? Is it an attitude that comes to worship sinfully because we feel it is an obligation that earns us something from God? Or do we come to worship joyfully because we eagerly desire the Sabbath rest that can only be found in the gospel of Christ? Do we make time to regularly read God’s Word throughout the week or do we become so busy with other things that we miss the Sabbath rest that can be ours through personal devotion? While it is true that we have many responsibilities during the week, many Christians discover that when we make time for God’s Word in our daily lives, he helps us to find the time to take care of our other responsibilities.

The main purpose of the Third Commandment is the great blessings that God wants us to receive. It really isn’t about some legalistic following of certain rules. We do participate in worship and in reading our Bible but it is not about what we do. The Third Commandment is about the blessings that God gives us through his rest.

In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” This verse captures the heart and core of the blessings that God gives us through the Sabbath day. In this life there are many things that make us weary and burdened. It can be everyday problems and it can be the result of our own sinfulness. Perhaps we are weary because we have not made enough time for God’s word. When the believer comes to Jesus in worship, Jesus gives us the rest that we need. He gives us the rest of his cross. In worship he comforts us with the gospel message of forgiveness that we can’t find anywhere else.

Jesus reminds us of this truth in our text for today. He says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This short phrase tells us why God made the Sabbath day. It is a day of blessing for human beings. The purpose is not that people should focus on slavishly coming to worship every Sunday and repeating the same words over and over without thinking about them. The real purpose is that we come and receive the gospel motivation to live our lives in this world. Think of the wonderful blessings we have in worship. Every single piece of the worship service is saturated with gospel truths. We receive absolution for our many sins. We meditate upon the wonders of God. We even receive our Lord’s true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins in the Lord’s Supper.

It is always important to remember that worship is not about what we want. Worship is truly about what we need. This is important to consider as we think about the forms of worship that we use. In our Christian freedom, we can decide how we want to worship God here at church. However, there can be worship styles and even songs which take the focus off of the gospel and give people too much credit. We need to be cautious about worship that focuses too much on us and how we serve God and what good people we are. That would be focusing on our actions rather than focusing on God’s blessings.

There are some churches out there today who have said that they don’t want to talk about sins because that would make people feel bad. They just want to talk about God’s love. This sounds nice but it is actually harmful. If we don’t recognize sin, then we really don’t need Jesus. God’s love is meaningless without the mention of our sinfulness. We need to feel bad about our sins. That is the only way that we can appreciate what Jesus did for us. Once we recognize our sins, the Sabbath rest of the gospel really is a rejuvenating message.

We need God’s Word because it is a powerful message that works in our hearts. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” God’s Word works on our hearts. Every time we hear it or read it, the Holy Spirit is working to strengthen us. Even if we have read our entire Bible, we will still benefit from reading it again and again because the Holy Spirit continues to work in us. He applies his words in new ways as we continue to grow closer to our God.

He keeps us in the faith through time in the Word. Hebrews 2:1 says this, “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” There is always the danger that the devil is going to lead us away from the faith that God has put into our hearts. This would be the drifting away that this verse speaks about. If we remove ourselves from worship and from the reading of God’s word, that danger becomes even greater. We can’t stress it enough. We need the time with God’s Word so that God can work in us and give us the blessings that we need.

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